Counting the rising cost of a democratic process

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Our contributing editor, former MP, Assembly Member and councillor ANDREW PELLING, says that there may be lessons we can take from the American election system. Campaign spending probably isn’t one of them

The Rev Jesse Jackson meets Inside Croydon’s contributing editor during his time as an MP. Jackson, the former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination has often backed British politicians

It’s election day in Croydon.

Croydon, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that is.

It’s a place that chimes with Steve Reed’s Lambeth voluntary sector public services model as Croydon PA has its fire engines manned entirely by volunteers.

In the 2008 Presidential election, Bucks county voted 54 per cent for Obama. It will be closer this time against Romney.

Back in the UK-version of Croydon, voters are now getting a lot of attention from party political canvassers, but residents can’t put a date in their diaries for when to visit the polling station just yet.

Labour hold the cards as regards to which Thursday will be chosen as the day of the by-election to find a replacement for the late Malcolm Wicks. Precedent leaves the incumbent party the discretion to have its chief whip move the writ in the House of Commons to call the by-election.

November 15, the day on which the police commissioner elections are taking place across England and Wales, has prompted by-elections in Manchester Central and Cardiff South as their MPs seek re-election for the local policing job, and it is when the Corby by-election will be held to replace Louise Mensch, who has quit to spend more time with her family.

For Croydon North, that date has come and gone as a possible election date. November 29 has long been trailed as the possible election day, with the chances being that our local constituency will share the national news agenda with Middlesbrough, which needs to elect a new MP following the death of Sir Stuart Bell.

The delay has allowed Labour to spend time carefully choosing its candidate and to plan for a very large effort to ensure a strong victory for their man from Lambeth.

Flexibility over dates shows some distinctions between American and British political practices.

Britain has moved to fixed-term parliaments closer to US election practice. The next UK General Election is due on May 7, 2015, the first time in nearly five centuries of parliamentary democracy that an election date has been fixed so far in advance.

But when it comes to by-elections, the incumbent party still fires the starting gun.

Ed Millband, the Labour party leader, pictured with Croydon North candidate Steve Reed yesterday

There are other contrasts. The political parties in the United States are much looser franchises, with candidates selected before the elections by much wider electorates. Party discipline is greater here.

Not that Reed is likely to depart from the Labour party line in any case, but it would be exceptional for a British MP to depart from the party whip as much as congressmen and senators do in Washington DC.

British politicians also normally lack a mandate from the wider electorate upon their selection as candidates. Many British parliamentary seats held by British political parties are so safe that the real election for the MP is in the gift of a small committee of party activists.

The Electoral Reform Society estimated before the last General Election that the number of such safe seats was 382, or 59 per cent of the total. Croydon South and Croydon North are among them.

The Conservatives under Iain Duncan-Smith’s leadership did modernise and widen participation in choosing parliamentary candidates by holding postal ballots and sometimes getting in independent residents’ associations to interview candidates.

When I was selected as the Conservative candidate in Croydon Central, a postal ballot of the membership was held, which I won by 413 votes to 9 over a former Dorset South Conservative MP.

David Cameron has also played with wider participation in selecting candidates. Dr Sarah Wollaston was selected in Totnes in an open primary where every voter in the Devon constituency was sent a ballot paper by the Conservative party. That mandate has strengthened Wollaston’s incumbency, and her independence from her party. The primary also had the benefit of increased contact with the voters.

When he was first selected as his party’s candidate for London Mayor, a primary was used to anoint Boris Johnson in 2008. He secured 75 per cent of the vote.

Such primaries are expensive, though, so British political parties will struggle to widen such participation without money input from the public purse or private sponsors. The States may provide the precedent.

Gavin Barwell was selected as candidate for Croydon Central by just 20 senior activists. Croydon Conservatives have used a committee of nine elected through an opaque and convoluted indirect system of election that would make the Soviet system look simple and transparent to choose their local council candidates.

Locally, Labour has seen internal controversy over a new committee system that will see existing councillors dominate a committee that chooses other council candidates.

The participation in the selection as parliamentary candidate of Labour’s Reed was reasonable, with weeks of canvassing and a healthy participation of 200 Croydon North party members in a party caucus. The party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) had slimmed down the original list of more than 100 applicants to the nine they interviewed and then to the five-strong shortlist they offered up to the Croydon North party members to select from.

By comparison, US politics provides for much wider involvement in the selection of candidates so that there are no safe seats, with even long-established liberal-minded politicians like Republican Senator Richard Lugar, of Indiana, a 35-year veteran of the Senate, losing out to a right-wing, populist challenger.

Elections in the US are a very expensive business

Primaries in the US are run by the state, some allowing only registered supporters to vote, some allowing voters to cross over to vote in the other party’s primary or indeed allowing independent non-aligned voters to participate in the choosing of the candidate.

But money is needed for all this and perhaps this is the greatest distinction between the shoestring politics of British parliamentarians and congressmen in the Commons’ equivalent, the American lower house – the House of Representatives.

General Elections in the UK usually see no more than £25,000 spent on a local parliamentary campaign in its last few weeks. Safe seats see a much lower spend; £100,000 might get spent by a party at a by-election.

US elections are much more about big bucks. Contrast the UK spend with a safe House of Representatives seat in the US (admittedly nine times larger than Croydon North): the 7th congressional district of Virginia elects Eric Cantor, the House’s Republican majority leader. It’s an unusual seat running out of Richmond on the I-64 and then to Culpepper with its daily train to Washington and then on to the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Many US electoral divisions are peculiarly shaped as the political parties control the re-distribution of seats, often to party political advantage – gerrymandering really.

The campaign money raised this time in this safe congressional Virginian seat was $12.5million, or £7.8 million.

While Croydon MPs get criticised in the Croydon Sadvertiser for spending 38p on a pencil, the 7th district congressman spends more than $1 million a year on staffing alone.

On top of the $12.5 million of private campaign money, typically congressmen will have $5million of public federal cash a year to spend on their offices and staff to allow them to exploit their incumbency.

But that’s small change compared to the estimated spend – mostly privately funded – on the election campaigns for President Obama and Mitt Romney which have made 2012 the first $2 billion presidential election.

They do things differently in the States.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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